Following Well in a Leadership World: a book review

Leadership is something of a cottage industry. There are books, motivational posters, podcasts, TED Talks, and conferences designed to help you grow your leadership and lead well. A smaller amount of literature exists on the idea of followership (mostly published by leadership experts). Allen Hamlin Jr. has worked in the non-profit sector, training, mentoring and consulting for multi-ethnic teams for a Christian non-profit. In Embracing Followership: How to Thrive in a Leader-Centric Culture  he critically engages the literature and offers insight and advice on how to follow well (and nurture followership).

embracingfollowershipcovernew-202x300Hamlin explores the topic under six headings. In Part 1, he addresses misconceptions regarding followership. These include  both misconceptions  followers have about following (leadership is the goal of followership, following is for cowards, followers have no influence and lack dignity, and followership is for lemmings) and misconceptions leaders  have about followers(i.e. followers are unqualified to lead, following is the polar opposite of leadership, followers just follow to get ahead). He also discusses the  misconceptions followers have about their leadership (leaders are superior, that they must be perfect, hierarchy is inhibiting, and that followers don’t really need leaders). Against these misconceptions, Hamlin underscores the intrinsic value of following well, and the ways in which leaders and followers form a mutually beneficial relationship.

The concept of followership is sharpened in Part 2. In chapter five he describes the obligations of good followership such as participating, stewarding resources well, and honoring and submitting to leadership. Additionally, followers follow well when they have the right attitude and are committed to their own personal development (62-65).  Chapter six outlines the significant contributions followers make by giving credence to an endeavor, providing a network of support, helping provide guidance, and contributing the leader’s development. Chapter seven discusses the concept of ownership, where both followers and leaders feel invested in their organization and the task at hand.

Part 3 explores the obstacles to following well. These include internal challenges (i.e. the need to be original, the desire for acknowledgement, and the inherent difficulty in taking risks),  relational challenges (the break down of communication, personality differences, misaligned and unspoken expectations), and cultural challenges (organizational structures, labels and vocabulary, and cross-cultural differences).  Hamlin suggests several resources for overcoming these difficulties including tools like the Ennegram and MBTI (and other resources for understand personal and group dynamics), mentoring and coaching and training in cross-cultural awareness (Chapter 11). Followers also thrive when their vision and role are clarified (126-132) and there is space for healthy rhythms of work and rest (135).  The final three sections of the book explore the relationship with leaders (Part 4), other followers (Part 5) and what leaders can do to nurture good followership (Part 6).

Hamlin illustrates the book with personal stories and plenty of quotes. He provides a comprehensive and critical reading of the literature, mindful of dynamics and opportunities for good followership. One of the insights I came away with was the common charactersitics of booth good leaders and good followers. Good leaders and followers are both concerned about their personal development, are good stewards of resources, enact and support the corporate vision, and exhibit ownership. It is true leaders and followers occupy different roles and functions, but both of them are essential to the success of an organization.

Another overlooked aspect of followership that Hamlin shines a light on is the influence of followers. Followers have tremendous capacity to support and give legitimacy to a leader’s vision, and influence their leader and offer input into the over all vision (156-57). Every follower who buys into the corporate vision is also a small “l” leader, influencing their peers towards excellence (181-82).

As a Christian, followership is more fundamental to my identity than leadership. Hamlin shares my Christian worldview, as does his publisher (Kirkdale Press); however this isn’t a Christian book in the sense that only Christians will benefit from Hamlin’s insights. Hamlin’s context is the not-for-profit world, but his message is broadly applicable for non-profits, churches and businesses. Followers will find plenty of food for thought on how to pursue  vocational excellence wherever they are (or somewhere with a leader worth following). Leaders will find encouragement and insights for nurturing followers and the the environment of those they lead. I give this book four-and-a-half stars.

Note: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review. Embracing Followership is available via Amazon or direct from the Kirkdale Press.

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